By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - A letter by former Cuban leader Fidel Castro congratulating a Havana medical institute on its 50th anniversary was splashed across the front pages of Cuban newspapers on Thursday in his first appearance in print in four months.
The letter and an accompanying story, which took up the entire first page of the Communist Party newspaper Granma, appeared to be an attempt to squelch rumors about his health and to lend his weight to the government's justification for imposition of travel restrictions 50 years ago.
Most of the travel restrictions, the government announced on Tuesday, will be done away with starting January 14.
Castro, 86, has been the subject of blogger and Twitter-fed rumors in recent weeks that he is dead or near dead, all fueled by his unusually long absence from the public eye.
After resigning the presidency in 2008, Fidel Castro regularly wrote columns for state press, but has not published one since June 19, and his last few were widely viewed as so oddball that they raised questions about his mental state.
His last known public appearance came in March when he met briefly with Pope Benedict during his visit to the communist island. Although he appeared mentally sharp, he had trouble walking and was badly stooped.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close friend and ally, has said on several occasions that Castro is well, and last week son Alex Castro said his father was exercising and doing fine.
The letter, published with his signature and dated October 17, cited the establishment of the Victory at Giron Institute of Basic and Preclinical Sciences in 1962 which Castro said "marked the beginning of the massive formation of doctors" that Cuba considers one of its trademark accomplishments.
The institute, he wrote, was launched in response to "criminal action by the neighboring empire to take away, as it did with promises of visas and jobs, most of the 6,000 doctors in the country."
His words echoed those of a government editorial published in Granma on Thursday accompanying the announcement that most of the five decade old regulations, widely hated by Cubans, would be lifted.
Under the new rules, doctors will be one of several professions still subject to the old restrictions.
(Editing by David Adams and Jackie Frank)